JUSTICE

Verdict on the past

A war-crimes trial ends with an acquittal

PATRICIA CHISHOLM June 4 1990
JUSTICE

Verdict on the past

A war-crimes trial ends with an acquittal

PATRICIA CHISHOLM June 4 1990

Verdict on the past

JUSTICE

A war-crimes trial ends with an acquittal

As the acquittal in Canada’s first warcrimes trial flashed around the world, reactions ranged from relief to stunned disbelief. A jury of eight women and four men deliberated for a little more than 12 hours last week before declaring 77-year-old Imre Finta not guilty of manslaughter and other crimes against thousands of Jews in Nazi-occupied Hungary during the Second World War. After the jury delivered its verdict in a Toronto courtroom before Mr. Justice Archie Campbell,

Finta smiled broadly, then broke into tears, sobbing that “nobody believes Finta a Nazi.” But in Vienna, Simon Wiesenthal—who has relentlessly pursued war criminals for 45 years and first informed Canadian authorities of Finta’s location—appeared to be shocked by the verdict. Said Wiesenthal: “I can’t believe it.” In Canada,

Jewish organizations urged Ottawa to appeal the case.

Said Helen Smolack, chairman of the Canadian Holocaust Remembrance Association, of the verdict: “It makes us lose faith in the justice system of Canada.”

The six-month trial was closely watched as a test of Canada’s war-crimes legislation. Finta, who served as a member of an elite Hungarian police force from 1935 to 1944, was the first person to be charged under the 1987 law permitting the prosecution of Canadians for war crimes committed in other countries before they became citizens of Canada. Finta emigrated to Canada in 1951 and worked as a cook in Toronto, where he later owned and operated restaurants. In 1987 Finta was charged with eight offences, including the confinement, robbery and kidnapping of 8,617 Jews in the Hungarian village of Sveged in June, 1944. During the trial, prosecution lawyers presented testimony from 43 witnesses, including videotaped interviews with witnesses in Hungary and Israel.

Many of the witnesses were elderly survi-

vors of Nazi concentration camps who gave emotionally charged accounts of their treatment. At least three witnesses pointed to Finta in the courtroom and testified that he was the same man who was present during the loading of Jews into crowded boxcars, designed to

carry cattle, at an abandoned brickyard. Witnesses said that the Jews were then transported to Nazi concentration camps, where many of them died. Margit Hahn, a 73-year-old Hungarian survivor of the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz, told the court that as a teenager she had once dated Finta, but that the relationship ended after several months. Years later, as she was being forced aboard a train headed for Auschwitz, Hahn said that she saw Finta, and that he screamed insults at her. Said Hahn, “He called me a stinking

whore, a Jewish whore, all kinds of dirt.” Finta’s lawyer, Douglas Christie, argued that there was no conclusive evidence that Finta was the police officer who witnesses said gave orders at the brickyard. Finta, who did not testify during the trial, acknowledged through his lawyer that he had served in the Hungarian national police and that he had been present when Jews were assembled in the brickyard. But Christie told the court that his client had merely obeyed orders and that he was only in charge of confiscating valuables, including jewelry and money, from Jewish prisoners. In his closing address, the lawyer said that Finta was relying on the “reasonable concept” that he was following valid orders by a higher authority.

As well, Christie pointed out that some witnesses had testified that a German officer was also present in the brickyard, while some prosecution documents referred to a commandant also being present. At one point, Christie compared Finta’s actions to those of RCMP officers who rounded up Japanese Canadians in 1942. Christie also called Canada’s war-crimes legislation “convoluted and diabolical.”

Campbell cautioned jurors to carefully evaluate the evidence identifying Finta as the man in charge of the brickyard. Campbell said that 46 years had passed since the events in question took place. As well, the judge noted that innocent people have sometimes been convicted on the basis of false identifications. Campbell also said that it would be “dangerous to convict” Finta for deaths that occurred in the boxcars because there was no medical evidence of their cause. As well, the judge cautioned jurors against considering whether their verdict would send a message to Canadians, or to people in other countries.

Following the verdict, retired Quebec judge Jules Deschênes, who led a royal commission into the question of alleged war criminals living in Canada, said of Finta: “They charged him. He was acquitted. Justice was served.” But angry reaction by Jewish leaders g included calls for the federal govemx ment to continue the pursuit of war 9 criminals now living in Canada. Currently, two other men are awaiting trial. Stephen Reistetter, 75, of St. Catharines, Ont., is charged with kidnapping and unlawfully transporting 3,000 Jews from Czechoslovakia during the Second World War Nazi occupation of that country. Michael Pawlowski, 72, of Renfrew, Ont., faces charges that he murdered 490 people in the Soviet Union in 1942. For his part, Crown prosecutor Christopher Amerasinghe said that he would review Judge Campbell’s address to the jury to determine whether the verdict in the Finta case should be appealed.

PATRICIA CHISHOLM